Here The Bear and The Mafia Roam
Kamchatka, east of Siberia. As the curtain rises on the new frontier of adventure outfitting, attendees include your guide (he's the one with the armored vehicle), the local businessman (he's the one with the machine gun), the UN environmentalist (he's the nervous-looking one), and your fellow tourists (they'll be arriving any moment now). Please enjoy the show
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In the central Siberian city of Tomsk, children play a game called Dead Telephone, whispering a sentence around a circle until someone fails to repeat the original wording accurately, and for the child who gets the sentence wrong, the penalty is “you must go live in Kamchatka.” Meaning that the loser has been imaginatively banished from the relative comforts of Siberia to the very end of the earth. Kamchatka, perhaps Russia’s most famous nowhere, the wild east of the Russian and Soviet empires, nine time zones and 10,000 kilometers distant from Moscow.
Tundra. Shimmering twilight. A slow, high-banked river the color of tea, as if it flowed from the spigot of a samovar.
Where I should have been was on a vodka-clear, rock-bottomed river, fast and wild, somewhere to the north and farther inland with a phantom cadre of biologists, fly-fishing for salmon specimens on the Kamchatka peninsula. Where I’d ended up was about three klicks inland from the Sea of Okhotsk, on an estuarine section of another river that I’d been advised, by the self-proclaimed criminals who deposited me here, to forget about, or else.
We had come from the end of the road, three hours across tundra and beach, atop my host’s — let’s call him Misha — GTT, a large, blunt-snouted all-terrain vehicle that came into his possession when the Soviet military began to disintegrate in 1991. Despite Misha’s earlier assurances, not only were we not going to the river I’d traveled thousands of miles to fish, in hopes of seeing what I’d never seen before — the phenomenon of a massive salmon run — but we’d be leaving in the morning, a day earlier than I thought had been agreed upon. Misha, who looked like a blond-haired, cornhusking quarterback, had Brandoesque mannerisms; waiting for my tantrum to subside, he tilted his head back and cocked it coolly, peering down the nascent beefiness of his ruddy face, and then chided me in the hushed cadence of the ever-reasonable gangster.
“Robert,” he said, “I’m Mafiya, Mafiya, Mafiya — not a tour agent.”
Then he wrapped his hands around his throat, as if to strangle himself, and said he would, if I wanted, take care of my inept outfitter back in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski (P-K), and for a moment I thought, Nice guy!
At the Mafiya’s oceanside fish camp, when I explained that, to salvage something out of the trip, I wanted to be ferried across the lagoon to spend the night upriver, Misha considered this desire stupid and pointless, but mostly he considered it dangerous. Bears were as thick as gooseberries over there, he said, and I didn’t have a gun, but when I persisted he ordered his boatman to take me across. Rinat, my half-Tatar, half-Russian interpreter/driver, was coming with me. Sergei, our wilderness guide, said he’d rather not.
Now, standing on a tiny tide-swept island in waist-high grass at the end of this remarkably strange day, I cast futilely for silver salmon with my spinning rod, the strong wind sailing the lure within inches of a sandy patch of beach jutting out below the opposite shore. On the steep bank 10 feet above me, Rinat had his nose in the food bag, tossing spoiled provisions out onto the ground.
“Rinat! Are you mad? Throw that food in the river.”
Kamchatka is said to have more and larger grizzly bears per square mile than any place on earth, but Rinat was churlishly indifferent to their presence. A city boy, born and raised in P-K, the peninsula’s largest metropolis, he was employed by a local tourist company trying to bluff its way into the wilderness biz. His employer — my outfitter — let him come out into the ever-perilous, grizzly-roamed outback without a proper food container, without even a tent (I’d brought my own). Earlier in the summer, we’d done soberingly foolish things together, taken risks that Rinat never seemed to recognize-traversed glaciers where one slip would send you plummeting into oblivion; edged ourselves out onto melting ice bridges; stood on the fragile crater floor of the belching Mutnovsky volcano, our lungs seared by sulfurous gases. How, I often wondered, was this puckish, hardworking fellow ever going to survive his occupation, here in one of the last great wild places left on earth?
“Sushi,” Rinat giggled irreverently, pitching stale bread and moldy cheese into the river, making a reference to Michiko Honido, the renowned bear photographer, who was eaten by his Kamchatkan subjects last year.
A minute later I hooked up with a good-size silver salmon, which cheered me deeply, here in the land called the Serengeti of Salmon, where I had been consistently thwarted in my (apparently not) simple quest to savor a fine day of fishing. The fish made its freedom run, keeping me well occupied, and when I looked up again, Rinat, the imp, had set the tundra on fire.
I landed the fish, put my rod down, hopped back to the mainland, and began hauling pots of water while Rinat slapped at the rapidly spreading flames with a fiber sack. Though I’d just reeled in the first salmon of my life, the experience had been akin to losing one’s virginity while your little brother’s in the room, playing with a loaded pistol.
Later, as I planked one of the filets for smoking, Rinat cut the other into steaks for the cookpot. We lolled around the campfire, uncommonly taciturn, because Rinat had found it politic to give away our last bottle of vodka to the boyos.
“Here we are with the criminals,” he said, shaking his head morosely. “Here we are with the bears.”
Imagine an Alaska sealed tight for 50 years, suspended in isolation, inaccessible to all outsiders until 1990, when the sanctum’s doors ease slowly open to the capitalists on the threshold, the carpetbaggers, the tycoon sportsmen, and, of course, the gangsters. Unworldly Kamchatka, with a not-quite-propitious swing of history’s horrible pendulum, is called upon to reinvent itself, and not for the first time.
As gold had once inspired the conquest of the New World, the lust for fur — beaver in North America, sable in Russia — accelerated the exploration of two continents and the spread of two empires. Russia’s eastward expansion very much mirrored America’s westward expansion — the genocidal subjugation of native peoples in the pursuit of natural riches and trade routes. White guys on the move.
Annexed for the czars by a Cossack expedition in 1697, Kamchatka provided Peter the Great with a global monopoly on the fabulously valuable sable. Within 40 years, the ruthless, plundering Cossacks had decimated the coastal-oriented Itelmen and reindeer-herding Koryaks — the likely descendants of indigenous people who had crossed the Bering Strait to North America. A native rebellion in 1731 resulted in a mass suicide, and before long 150,000 tribal people had been reduced to 10,000, their number today, barely 2.5 percent of Kamchatka’s population. Racially and culturally, Kamchatka is as Eurocentric as a bottle of Perrier.
In 1725, Peter the Great sent Captain Vitus Bering on an unsuccessful mission to determine the relation of eastern Siberia to the American continent. Bering was recommissioned by Peter’s successor, and his Great Northern Expedition, which took years to plan and execute and eventually involved 3,000 people, is rightfully remembered as one of the greatest voyages of discovery. Bering sailed his two packets, the St. Peter and the St. Paul, into Avachinsky Bay in 1740 and founded the town of Petropavlovsk, named after his ships. The following spring he set sail for the coast of North America, sighting land in July — Kayak Island off the Alaskan coast — and throughout the summer and fall he mapped the Aleutians, charted the Alaskan shoreline, and then turned back toward Kamchatka, discovering the Commander Islands. His efforts had irrevocably opened the Russian Far East and Russian America for development and trade-in particular, the fur trade, which continued to dominate the peninsula’s economy until 1912, the year St. Petersburg banned the trapping of sable for three years to restore the species’ population.
Surprisingly, no one showed much interest in the more available resource — salmon — until 1896, when the first fish processing plant, sponsored by the Japanese, was established at the mouth of the Kamchatka River, once the site of the peninsula’s most prolific run. By the time the last Japanese left the peninsula 31 years later, Kamchatka had been thoroughly incorporated into the Soviet system, and both the salmon fishery and the sable trade were transformed into state monopolies. Kamchatkans were free to harvest as much salmon as they wanted until 1930, when the state’s imposition of limits radically affected subsistence fishing, and by 1960 the official allowance, 60 kilos a year, was barely sufficient to keep a sled dog from starving. Meanwhile the commercial fishery was booming, and by 1990 Kamchatka’s total annual salmon catch had increased from 30,000 tons to 1.5 million tons. As in Alaska, the fishery began to develop dry holes — a river here, a bay there, under severe pressure.
As Kamchatka receded behind the curtain of official xenophobia after World War II, Moscow rapidly developed the area’s defenses — a submarine base in Avachinsky Bay; ICBM launch sites, satellite tracking stations, military outposts up and down its coastlines — and expected in return “gross output.” Not just salmon and sable; now everything was up for grabs. By the late ’80s, central Kamchatka’s primary forests, 60 percent old-growth larch, were decimated; the Soviets had managed to annihilate Kamchatka’s herring spawning grounds as well. Today, in a debauchery of joint ventures with foreign companies, Moscow has taken aim at the crab and pollock fisheries, at risk to suffer the same fate as the larch, the sable, the herring. Nor has the end of Communism spelled anything but crisis for Kamchatka’s legendary brown bears. By 1997, the peninsula’s Cold War population of grizzlies, an estimated 20,000 bears, had been halved by poachers and trophy hunters. At the rate things are going, says Boris Kopylov, the vice-director of Kamchatka’s State Environmental Protection Committee, the most powerful federal agency mandated to preserve the peninsula’s natural resources, “In the next five years all the endangered species will be at a critical level, the sea otters and bears especially.” This year, the agency’s staff was halved: Conservation law enforcement in remote areas vanished as helicopter patrols were reduced from 300 flying hours to zero, and the system, as Kopylov lamented, didn’t work anymore. “If you want to save Kamchatka,” said Robert Moiseev, one of the peninsula’s leading environmental scientists, “You’re welcome to pay for it.”
Shortly after dawn, the criminals returned to collect us, a humorless sense of urgency in their manner. The chiefs were mightily vexed, they told us, having last night discovered that thieves had spirited away 1,200 kilos-one ton-of caviar the gang had cached on the beach.
“Check Rinat’s knapsack,” I said. The criminals smiled uneasily — heh-heh — and we loaded our gear into the skiff. I’d come to Kamchatka, twice, to fish, and so far I’d been allowed to do damn little of it. In July, a rafting trip on the Kamchatka River quickly devolved into some awful hybrid of absurdity — Samuel Beckett meets Jack London. The rafts were dry-rotted, the river had been dead for 10 years, the mosquitoes were nightmarish, our fishing “guide” was actually a hawk-eyed tayozhnik, a taiga woodsman, who had given his stern heart to hunting and horses but had probably never seen a sportfisherman in his life.
On my second expedition to Kamchatka, the day I arrived in P-K from Anchorage an M1-2 helicopter crashed, killing everyone aboard, and I no longer had a ride to the mythical river up north. My local outfitter hadn’t considered a Plan B. The only alternative, untested, that the outfitter could offer was for Rinat and me to head out to the coast and try to beg a lift across the tundra with anybody we could find in possession of a GTT — the acronym translated as “Tracks Vehicle: Heavy.”
First we drove in Rinat’s truck to a village south of P-K to collect Sergei, the wilderness guide, a Russian version of Bubba, attired in camouflage fatigues, who was an erstwhile law-enforcement officer for RIVOD, the peninsula’s Fish Regulatory Board. He was now employed as a field worker by TINRO — the Pacific Scientific Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, a state agency operating in association with the Russian Academy of Science but in cahoots with commercial interests. From 1990 to 1996, hard currency gushed in as TINRO became a clearinghouse for the avaricious flow of foreign investment into Kamchatka’s fisheries. “Everybody in the institute got very rich. There was so much money they didn’t know what to do with it,” a TINRO scientist had told me. “The bosses built big dachas, bought expensive cars.” The institute’s sudden wealth finally attracted the attention of Moscow, which began sucking up 90 percent of the institute’s revenues and controlling quotas.
Sergei, as a quasi-scientific government employee, was our insurance, along for the ride not only to steer us clear of official trouble, but to legitimize whatever it was we might end up doing that was a bit too diki-wild, independent-for the apparatchiks.
At the last town before the windswept barrenness of the coast, we turned down a dirt road toward a pre-Soviet Dogpatch, a cluster of clapboard and tar-papered houses, stopping in front of the first one we saw with a GTT in its yard. There on the wooden stoop was Misha, barefoot, wearing camouflage bib overalls, one of his forearms intricately tattooed. He could have been any midwestern hayseed waiting for the glory of team sport. Sergei hopped out, explained our mission, and offered to hire Misha and his machine.
“Nyet,” insisted Misha. Money, he explained, was nothing to him; therefore, yes, he would take us up the coast, but as his guests. I had no way of measuring the offer and began to ask predictable questions, anticipating predictable answers. The house wasn’t his, he said; he came here on the weekends from P-K with his friends to relax.
“What do you do in the city?”
“We are criminals,” he replied. “Even the FBI knows about us.”
“What’d you do,” I joked naively, “sell missiles to Iran?”
Misha narrowed his eyes and demanded to know why I asked such a question. I swore I was only kidding around, and he studied me hard for a good long minute before his demeanor changed and, clapping me on the back, he decided, I suppose, that I was good entertainment out here in the hinterlands — an American writer dropped into his lap.
“Robert, you will write your story about me, you will put me on the cover of your magazine, you will tell the truth,” he declared matter-of-factly, an extravagant display of hubris.
The truth, as I understood it, went something like this: Years ago Misha had committed a crime, the nature of which he refused to explain except obscurely. The old system — the commies, I suppose — threw him in jail in Siberia for “not fitting in,” where he fell in with like-minded troublemakers sharing grandiose, if not exactly morally based, ambitions for a better life. Most significantly, he connected with his fierce partner — let’s call him Viktor, and then let’s forget that we ever called him anything.
Gorbachev, perestroika, freedom, the implosion of the USSR, crony economics, the democracy scam — Misha and his Siberian Mafiya crew moved to Kamchatka and became underworld oligarchs. These were the days, the early ’90s, of the diki Mafiya: no rules, every man for himself, and bodies in the streets. As best I could determine, Misha and friends privatized — seized — a huge tract of state property on the coast, an expansive fiefdom containing four or five rivers plus a processing plant, and went into the caviar business. Eventually the Mafiya and the government realized they had to coexist, so now, after massive greasing, the Mafiya had all the requisite documents and licenses they needed in order to legally do what they were doing — harvesting and processing an astonishing 30 tons of caviar a season to ship to their associates in Moscow.
“The Mafiya,” explained Misha, “is a state within a state,” and perhaps it was destined to morph into the state itself, because if the government ever tries to recover the properties and companies and concerns the Mafiya had sunk its claws into, “there will be a coup d’ëtat,” said Misha emphatically, “and there will be a civil war.” Which was exactly the sort of dire prediction I’d been hearing from every upright citizen in Kamchatka throughout the week.
We went inside the austere little house, where Misha sat me down at the kitchen table and smothered me in hospitality, happily watching me shovel down the grub he set out — pasta with minced pork and silver salmon dumplings. Someone appeared with a large bowl of fresh curds and whey. Bonbons? asked Misha, sticking a box of chocolates in my face. Out came a bottle of Armenian brandy. The cross-cultural we-are-all-brothers stuff proceeded splendidly until I made the mistake of cussing.
“Blyat,” I said — shit. I can’t even remember about what.
“Robert,” Misha objected, “don’t hurt my ears with bad words. Real men,” he admonished in his lullaby voice, “don’t need to talk to each other this way.”
In the morning, Misha double-checked the tide chart he carried folded in his wallet. “Robert, let’s have one for the road,” he said. What he meant was, Let’s have one bottle for the beginning of the road. Aspirin and vodka, the breakfast of criminals. Afterward we mounted the GTT and crawled headfirst through the hatch covers into the cavernous interior. We bucked and roared out of town, across the east-west highway and onto the much-scarred tundra, stopping long enough for Misha, Rinat, and myself to climb up on the roof, where we each wrapped a hand around safety ropes and held on as the driver slammed the beast into gear and we slopped our way forward through the bogs.
An hour later we arrived at the coast, littered with the shabby sprawl of a government fish operation. We churned onward through the pebbly sand, the blue Sea of Okhotsk to our left, huge slabs of tundra peat eroding from coastal bluffs on our right. Misha, surveying his kingdom, took delight in pointing out the sights — white-tailed eagles swooping down out of the moody heavens, flocks of berry-fat ptarmigans tumbling clumsily out of the scrub, a pod of all-white beluga whales, scores of sea otters bobbing in the waves off a river mouth. We crossed another without a hitch and Misha happily announced that we were entering private property — his.
We saluted the first brigade of his workers, a motley crew of caviar cowboys. They looked like — and perhaps might someday soon be — partisan rebels in their black rubber waders, filthy overcoats, stubbled faces. We cracked open another bottle of vodka, ate lunch, and Misha wanted pictures, group pictures, buddy pictures, and I took out my camera. We went on, conferring with another survivalist cell of workers farther up the coast, always a guy with a rifle or shotgun standing nearby.
Misha had become a bit nervous, his bonhomie turned brittle. Somewhere up ahead was his jack-booted partner Viktor, who had outlawed alcohol in the camps. If you signed onto a brigade, if you were lucky enough to be asked, you came to work, worked yourself to numbing exhaustion, but after a 12-day cycle of setting nets, pulling nets, tearing the roe out of thousands of now-worthless salmon and processing the eggs into caviar, you went home with a small fortune — $1,500 a man. Then, and only then, you could drink your Russian self blind, for all Viktor cared.
Twenty minutes later, we came to a pair of Ural trucks ahead on the beach. “No pictures!” Misha warned as I followed him to the dune line, toward a storm-built village of wooden-hulled shipwrecks. At this moment I had to be honest with myself about Misha’s character flaws relevant specifically to my presence there on the beach: His pride — he wanted to boast. His gregariousness — he wanted to be liked and appreciated. His generosity — he wanted everyone to understand he was a big man who looked after his own. Viktor, Misha’s partner but apparently the first among equals, had no such flaws.
“Here is Viktor,” said Misha. It wasn’t an introduction. I glanced toward Viktor, who looked at me steadily, his round face icy with menace, and I immediately turned and walked away, careful not to acknowledge him, as he was so clearly offended by my existence. Misha had erred in bringing me here with my retinue, playing games when there was serious work to be done, caviar to salt, traitors to whack, and now he vied for Viktor’s forbearance of this cardinal sin. When we rendezvoused with Misha back at the GTT, he was singing the same tune of camaraderie, but in a different key.
“Robert,” he said, gazing meaningfully into my eyes, “don’t write about us … or I will lose all respect for you,” which I suppose is how a real man says I will have your ass.
Which brings everything back to this lagoon behind the Mafiya’s northernmost outpost, where I stood that morning after my night out on the tundra with Rinat, not caring so much about how the treachery of the stolen caviar might somehow come crashing down on us when we reunited with Misha and Viktor at low tide, but instead far more concerned with my new belief that I was destined never to have a solid day of good fishing here in the angler’s paradise of Kamchatka.
When Misha had dropped us here the previous afternoon, we’d spent a moment discussing the nature of things, fishwise. His men had gawked at me, the sportfisherman. Not a one had ever brought in a fish unless he had gaffed, gigged, netted, snagged, or somehow scooped it out of the water like a bear. When Misha finally understood the style of fishing I was intent on doing, he frowned.
“Nyet, nyet, nyet,” he said. “Don’t bring that here. We don’t want catch-and-release here.” We argued: If he kept harvesting the roe at such a pace, where would the fish be for his children, his grandchildren? “Robert,” Misha smiled, “you and I alone are not going to solve this problem.”
And then, too quick, always too quick, it was time to go. Back in Misha’s orbit, the criminals actually were in high spirits. It had been a good season so far, the silvers were starting to arrive, and the interior of the GTT was packed solid with wooden casks of precious caviar.
“I don’t like to catch fish,” Misha said breezily. “I like to catch money.”
Kamchatka’s exploitation was both an old and a new story, but so was the campaign to preserve its wealth of resources. In 1996 Russia bequeathed more than one-fourth of Kamchatkan territory to the UN Development Programme. A stunning gift to mankind — a World Heritage site that includes the Kronotsky Biosphere Nature Preserve, 2.5 million acres of some of the most spectacular landscape on earth. The Kronotsky Preserve contains a geyser field that is second only to Yellowstone’s, and the Uzon Caldera, filled with steam vents, smoking lakes, mud cauldrons, and dozens of hot springs. It also is home to three times as many grizzlies as in the entire Yellowstone ecosystem, plus the greatest known populations of Pacific and white-tailed eagles. The park has 22 volcanoes, including the Fuji-like Klyuchevskaya, 15,584 feet of elegant cone, the tallest active volcano in Asia or Europe.
Many Kamchatkans fear that, as the economy plummets and the country opens itself to the unchecked appetites of the free market, the peninsula’s natural resources will be raided and areas like Kronotsky overrun by tourists. When I spoke with Boris Sinchenko, vice-governor of the Kamchatka region administration and one of the men at the helm of Kamchatka’s future, he told me, “In five to 10 years, we expect to host five to 10 million tourists annually and to have built the infrastructure to accommodate them. The territory is so large, we can easily lose 10 million people in its vastness.”
Many Kamchatkans also harbor a corollary fear. The peninsula’s total population is less than 500,000, three-quarters of which lives in or around P-K. An environmental scientist told me with a shrug, “When’s there’s no electricity, the people say, ‘We don’t care about nature, give us heat!'” One day, Rinat had slapped an orange sticker on the front of my notebook, given to him by his ex-wife, who worked for a Canadian gold mining conglomerate: Hungry, Homeless, Need a Job? Call the Sierra Club, Ask About Their No Growth Policy. Only the most arrogant conservationist would demand that Kamchatkans remain impoverished in order to preserve their wonderland for a future less hopeless and bleak than the present. Talking with Sinchenko, however, I sensed there was something a bit cynical about signing over a quarter of the peninsula to the enviros at the UN, as if now that it had proved its enlightenment, the state had earned carte blanche to do what it pleased with the rest of its resources.
There were precedents for such cynicism. Twice, in the ’60s and the ’80s, the Soviets began to erect power plants on swift-flowing rivers inside or near the reserve, destroying spawning grounds and wasting millions of rubles. Nevertheless, a large hydroelectric project is under construction on the Tolmachevo River, and the gorgeous, fish-rich Bystraya River flowing through the village of Esso was stuck with a dam and power station. Sitting below the areas around Esso are some of the richest unmined gold deposits in the world. When I spoke with Boris Kopylov of the State Environmental Protection Committee, he mentioned that his agency had been successful in stopping exploratory drilling on west coast oil deposits and halting placer mining for gold near the mouth of the Kamchatka River, but it was clear that sooner or later the oil was going to be drilled and the Esso gold deposits were going to be extracted, ultimately endangering spawning grounds in central Kamchatka. “In previous years all the [environmental] agencies were completely against all exploration for gas, oil, and gold,” said Kopylov. “Now our position is to change a little.”
In the salmon fishery, the magnitude of greed, multiplied in many instances by a struggle for survival, was mind-boggling. “Illegal fishing out of Kamchatka yields $2 billion a year,” David La Roche, a consultant for the UN’s environmental mission to Kamchatka, told me over beers in a P-K cafë as we talked about the local flowchart for corruption. “The legal fisheries are yielding not as much.”
The economic pressures that confront the ordinary Kamchatkan were made viscerally clear to me in July when I met Vladimir Anisimov, the headman of Apacha, a sprawling collective farm about 150 kilometers due west of P-K. A prosperous dairy farm until Gorbachev presided over the nation’s demise, Apacha’s ability to survive had seriously corroded, its herds whittled away by the state from 4,000 to 400 head, its buildings in sad disrepair. In desperation, the Apacha villagers had signed an experimental one-year contract with the Japanese to collect mushrooms, herbs, and fiddlehead ferns from the surrounding forest. And then, like almost every other collective in Kamchatka, Apacha had gone into the fishing business.
Everyone was waiting, waiting, for the fish to start their run, but when I returned to Apacha in September, I learned that, as in much of Alaska this summer, it never happened — the July run of salmon never really came in from the sea. Nobody in the village had been paid a wage in recent memory. Vladimir was at a loss; the collective hadn’t netted half its quota of 1,200 tons when, if truth be told, it had counted on netting its legal quota and then doubling it with another thousand tons off the books, as is the common practice. Apacha was rotting on the hoof, the central government gnawing away at the resources that the people had struggled 50 years to create. Since the middle of August, the ruble had lost two-thirds of its value, and the last day I saw Vladimir, shops were empty of basic foodstuffs, and Apacha was without electricity because there wasn’t any fuel to run its generator. Even in such dire straits, the kindness and generosity that all Kamchatkans had shown me did not abandon Vladimir, and he embarrassed me by siphoning gas out of his own vehicle so that I could go fishing.
Sergei, heretofore simply along for the ride, suddenly awoke to the idea that it was time to take control of our half-baked expedition, now that we had parted with the Mafiya and exhausted every option in our one and only plan to head north to that never-fished river. Pointing for Rinat to take a turnoff up ahead on the east-west road, Sergei allowed that if all I truly wanted to do was fish, then he had an idea that might finally relieve me of my obsession.
Sergei disappeared down a path. I sat in Rinat’s diesel truck, praying that something good might come of this. Rinat wouldn’t look at me, and I could hardly blame him. His country was falling apart around him, and he was stuck chauffeuring a sport-crazed American, one of the nominal victors in an ugly game we had all been forced to play. All he could do was resign himself to an even uglier truth — foreigners equal money equals hope: Drive on.
Sergei reemerged from the trees, beaming. He had a pal, the local tayozhnik, who owned a skiff and was caretaker of a hunting cabin about a half-hour’s cruise downriver at the base of the mountains, at the mouth of a tributary as thick with char and mikisha (rainbows) as the main river itself was obscenely packed with the season’s final run of pink salmon. The tayozhnik would be willing to take us there.
“But there’s a problem,” said Sergei, wincing. “No gasoline for the outboard motor.”
OK, that was a problem — there was only one gas station within 100 kilometers, and it was closed. We drove to a shack atop the bluff above an invisible river and picked up the tayozhnik, an unshaven backwoods gnome we might have roused from an Appalachian hollow, and together we traveled a half-hour to Apacha, where Vladimir, the destitute headman of his destitute people, came to our rescue with the siphoned gas. Two hours later, back on the bluff, while I repacked my gear for the boat, Sergei and the woodsman suddenly took off to run unspecified errands.
Rinat and I broke out the medicine and resigned ourselves to further delay. Then began the cirque surreal. First to wander across the clearing was a lugubrious old man who stood gaping at me with wet eyes, as if I were the Statue of Liberty. I passed him the bottle of vodka so that he might cheer up. Then a group of hooligans from Apacha screamed up in their battered sedan, disco blasting, apparently convinced we had come to the river to party. Obligingly, I passed around another bottle. Another hour ticked off the clock.
Sergei and the tayozhnik returned, followed in short order by a carload of RIVOD inspectors, blue lights flashing, replaced only a few minutes later by the militia, who sprang from their car patting their sidearms. Again, we passed the bottle.
Night was quickly falling. Just as I bent to hoist my duffel bag, a van rolled into the clearing and out flew a not unattractive woman in a track suit and designer eyeglasses. “I heard there was an American here!” she shouted breathlessly and, zeroing in, almost tackled me in her excitement. She dragged me back to the van and shoved me inside, where her three companions rolled their eyes with chagrin, handed me a plastic cup, and apologetically filled it with vodka. My abductor — Marguerite — knelt in front of me, her hands on my knees, babbling flirtatiously.
“What gives?” I said, utterly bewildered. She slipped a business card into my shirt pocket and pleaded that I allow her to represent me, refusing to hear my explanation that there was nothing to “represent.” OK, she said, let’s do joint venture.
“Robert?” I heard Sergei calling me. They were ready to go, no more endless dicking around.
I tried to get up, but Marguerite pushed me back in my seat. I grabbed her hands, looked her in the eyes, and firmly declared, “I have to go fishing.”
“Nyet,” she cried, “nyet, nyet, nyet,” and she kissed me. Her friends looked straight ahead, as if it were none of their business.
I lurched for the door, but she had me wrapped up. This couldn’t be more bizarre, I told myself — until Marguerite began stuffing six-ounce cans of caviar into the pockets of my slicker. OK, I said, if you want to come, fine, but I’m going fishing now. Marguerite relaxed just long enough for me to bolt out of the van, but there she was again, welded to my arm, attached to me in some frightening, unknowable way.
There was a quick, sharp exchange between her and the gnome, and the next I knew I was threading my way, alone and free, down the bluff through the darkening slope of stone birches. The air was warm, but when you inhaled it was the river you breathed, its mountain coldness, and I felt transcendentally refreshed. Then we were all in the boat, sans Marguerite, shoving off into the main current of this perfect river, the Plotnikova, clean and fast and wild enough for any harried soul.
We were carried forward on a swift flow of silver light, stars brightening in the deep blue overhead. Then the light died on the river too, just as the tayozhnik beached the bow on the top end of a long gravel bar, bellying out into the stream. It was too late, too dark, to forge on to the hunter’s camp, and I said fine. Sergei begged off again, said he’d be back to pick us up tomorrow, and I said fine to that too. Rinat and I threw our gear ashore, and I pushed the skiff back into the current and then stood there, the black cold water swirling around my waders, singing praise on high for the incredible fact of my deliverance. This river made noise; this river sang.
We dug out our flashlights and dragged our packs about a hundred yards up from the water’s edge to the trunk of a huge tree ripped from the riverbank and washed onto the bar. Rinat collected wood for a campfire, and soon we squatted in a private dome of firelight, watching a pot of water boil for tea. I hadn’t eaten all day, and my stomach growled.
“Rinat, where’s the food?”
He cleared his throat and confessed he’d given everything to the Mafiya, mumbling some ridiculous explanation about the code of the wilderness.
“Where’s my candy?”
“I gave it to the criminals.”
“You gave the Mafiya my candy! They had their own candy.”
“It was the least we could do,” said Rinat, “since, you know, they didn’t kill us when you hurt their ears with bad words.”
We rocked into each other with laughter, howling at the absurdities we had endured together. Our assorted adventures, supernaturally screwed up and filled with hazard, were over but for one true and honest day of fishing, out on the sheer edge of a magnificent world, in a nation going to hell. I patted my pocket for cigarettes and discovered a tin of Marguerite’s caviar, Rinat produced a hunk of brown bread, and we ate. He rolled out his sleeping mat and bag and tucked himself into the tree trunk. “Let me apologize in advance,” I said, “if the bears come to eat you.”
And in the morning, the fish — like the trees and the gravel bar, like the screaming birds and humming bottleflies, like the sun and its petticoat of mists and everything else to be found in its rightful place — the fish were there. I had never seen anything remotely like it, the last days of an immense salmon run. What first struck me, as it hadn’t last night, was the profound stench. The gravel island was carpeted with the carcasses of pink salmon — humpbacks — from the height of the run, one of the most concentrated runs in recent years, as if so many fish within its banks had made the river overflow. Now the slightest low spot on the island was pooled with rotting eggs where fish had spawned. Maggots were everywhere, a sprinkle of filthy snow across the rocks and mud and weeds, and dead fish everywhere, rimed with a crust of maggots. I slipped into my waders, walked down to the river through shoals of decomposing fish, and entered the water. Humpback salmon nosed my boots as they struggled wearily upstream; like the prows of sinking ships, the gasping jaws of debilitated male humpies poked out of the water as the fish drifted by, their milt spent, their energy spent, the last glimmer of life fading into the sweep of current. In the shallows, gulls sat atop spawned but still — living fish, tearing holes into the rosy flesh. Fish still fresh with purpose threw themselves into the air, I don’t know why, but what I did know was that the salmon were bringing the infinite energy of the sea upriver, an intravenous delivery of nutrients funneling into the land, the animals, the insects and birdlife and the very trees.
Here, in a salmon, nature compressed the full breath of its expression, the terrible magnificence of its assault, and I stood in the current, mesmerized. On the far bank at the mouth of a tributary there were poachers. At first glance it seemed that they had built low bonfires on the opposite shore, the red flames licking and twisting, but where was the smoke? I wondered, and as I looked more deliberately I saw my mistake: The writhing flames were actually fish. One poacher worked at the base of the tall bank, poised like a heron above the stream, using a long staff to gaff salmon — females, hens — as they swam past and then flipping the fish overhead to a pile on the top of the bank, where his partner crouched, gutting out the roe.
When the spell broke, I sat down on a log and finally accomplished the one thing I had passionately desired to do for days, months, all my life: I rigged my fly rod for salmon fishing.
I decided to head down the bar to where the currents rejoined at the rapids below its downstream point, an eddy splitting off to create slack water. The island was probed by wayward, dead-end channels, trickling into basins where the sand had flooded out, and as I waded through the biggest pool scores of humpback salmon, coalesced into orgies of spawning, scurried before me in the foot-deep shallows like finned rats. In the deeper holes the season’s last reds cruised lethargically in their scarlet and olive-green “wedding dresses,” as the Kamchatkans call a fish’s spawning colors. I sloshed onward to dry land, the fish gasping, the birds screaming, and everywhere the reek of creation.
On the tail of the bar I planted my feet in the muck and cast into a deep turquoise body of water that resembled nothing so much as an aquarium, waiting for the connection, that singular, ineffable tug that hooks a fisherman’s hungry heart into whatever you want to call it — the spirit of the fish, the bigness of life or even the smallness, the euphoric, crazed brutality of existence, or simply a fight: the drama of the battle between man and his world. Not every cast, but most, ended with a fish on my hook, a glorious humpback, three to five pounds each, the hens painted in swaths of mulberry, green, and rose, the males beautifully grotesque with keel-like dorsal humps and hooked jaws like the beak of a raptor.
A day of humpies landed on flies here on this grand river was enough to quench my deepest craving for the sport, but then my rod bent from the pressure, the reel sang its lovely shrill song as the line escaped, and here came the silvers, big and angry, like bolts of electricity, filled with the power of the sea. Rinat finally joined me in this dance, and by the late afternoon, when Sergei and the tayozhnik returned, we had two fish apiece, the limit, silvers as long and fat as our thighs.
We gathered more wood, Rinat started the fire, and Sergei brought his cookpot from the boat. “I’m going to show you how to make a poachers’ ukhž,” said Sergei, cutting off the salmon heads and tails and sliding them into the boiling pot with diced potatoes and onion and dill. I had caught dozens of pinks but kept only one, a female, and Sergei slit her belly to make instant caviar, unsacking the eggs into a bowl of heavily salted water.
We sat in the gravel with our backs propped against the fallen tree and gazed lazily out at the fast blue dazzle of the river, slurping our fish soup. A raft floated down from around the bend, paddled by two RIVOD officers. The poachers on the opposite shore vanished into the forest, the wardens paddled furiously into the tributary, and we listened as the crack of gunshots resonated over the river, here in the Wild East.
Sergei, waxing philosophical, quoted a poet: “It’s impossible to understand Russia, only to believe in it.” Then he lifted a spoon of caviar to my lips, and I recalled the last fish I had caught that day, a hen, which had no business hitting my fly, ripe as she was. When I brought her from the water she sprayed a stream of roe, an arc in the air like a chain of ruby moons, splashing over my feet onto this most eternal, unsettled world of the river.